Lynda Gray

After 13 years of pursuing high weaner growth rate, the Matthews family is starting a new chapter of genetic development. At Puketira Deer Farm at Waikari, North Canterbury the first steps are being taken to develop breed values for early conception and mature weight.

This next step follows the realisation that pushing the weight of young deer through an annual AI program was also pushing the mature size of the breeding hinds which wasn’t ideal for dryland hill country.

Over the course of AI, the mature hind weight average increased to about 130kg which Lyndon would like to pull back closer to 120kg. He’s hoping the question of how to ramp back that mature weight while maintaining the high early growth rates will be answered by developing Puketira deer-based breed values.

The recording of performance is nothing new; there are several years of liveweight figures and more recently DNA parentage testing results from Genomnz.

“We have a lot of data but they’re essentially isolated pieces of information and the question has always been how do we link it all together and make it meaningful,” Lyndon Matthews says.

The data gathering for the new breed values started in earnest with the 2018-born progeny. Pedigree information from Genomnz plus the three, six, nine and 12-month liveweights from 90 stag and 90 hind fawns was taken. Also, the dam of each fawn was recorded for conception date and scanned to determine foetal age. The data, in Excel format, was sent, processed and entered into the DeerSelect database by Julia Aspinall, Genetic Gains Ltd.

The estimated annual cost of the breed value development exercise is about $15,000 a year, roughly the same amount spent each year on the annual AI and DNA parentage testing of 75 hinds.

“It’s a significant cost but if you want genetic gain you have to invest in your herd.”

The breed values will form the basis of selection, but also for identifying culls.

Lyndon Matthews is no gene genius, but the use of genetics for productive gain has always interested him. He was familiar with selecting rams based on high SIL BV indexes, before using the deer equivalent, DeerSelect, launched in 2005.

“Using sires recorded through DeerSelect and their breeding values has allowed us to achieve with Reds what others achieve with hybrids.”

The initial focus was breeding prime weight weaners for the early season market which has been achieved judging by a DeerPro performance report./

It’s a blunt way of measuring the payback from breed values due to the seasonal influences on production, such as the drought in 2015/16. However, what stands out is the almost straight line 4kg increase in carcase weight, and the time from birth to finishing weight which, averaged out over five years, has reduced by 50 days.

“We’re now killing all our stags and non-replacement hinds – all Reds and including first-fawners – by the 1st of December, which in a summer-dry environment such as ours is really important.”

The other big payback is a more consistent line of weaners.

“We don’t have the tail end we used to, and we have a condensed weight range.”

Getting on track with the right genetics to reach the early season target was largely due to using DeerSelect sires with a high Replacement Early Kill index (R-Early Kill) across 75 second and third calvers.

The R-Early Kill index, expressed in dollars, combines breeding values for growth, meat yield and conception and factors in the influence of higher schedule and feed prices in the early spring period.

The best AI stag progeny were used over the other 400 hinds; and some sold as sires to a repeat buyer who prefers medium type well-muscled animals.

It took about five years of AI for a noticeable improvement in overall herd performance, and two to three generations for significant advancement.

In hindsight Lyndon says he was slow off the mark in backing up the genetic gains with changes in feeding and management.

“It was suggested to me after six years of the AI programme that we weren’t feeding well enough to capitalise on the genetic gain.”

More quality spring green feed and a reduction in stocking rate helped bump up average weights. Another management move was the culling of a lot of older hinds to make way for more yearling hinds.

“We turned over half the herd in two years to get new genetics more quickly into the herd.”

Genetic improvement along with EID tagging turned on its head the traditional kill strategy. Instead of holding on to the lighter weight animals the heaviest and fastest growing were kept making a better profit margin.

“If they’re growing 500g a day it makes sense to keep them a month longer by which time they’ll put on another 7kg CW, instead of keeping lighter ones that are only adding 100g a day. We can show that changing to this killing strategy has improved our per/head value.”

The AI breeding plan has delivered to the point that the programme has been put on hold for the meantime, because of the good number of high genetic merit hinds.

“We’ve built up the numbers of high genetic merit hinds. We don’t believe we can go a lot further with the available genetics but would look at AI again as DeerSelect and breeding values further develop.”

Date that data

It’s an obvious but sometimes overlooked detail of the recording process, Julia Aspinall of Genetic Gains says.

“Make sure that you note the date the stag went out, did pregnancy scanning and foetal aging. It substantially increases accuracy and is important for breed values related to conception.

Liveweight data should also clearly indicate the date taken and whether the measurements are from a single or multiple mob. For multiple mobs DeerSelect will adjust for any variation between mobs due to management or environmental influences.

“The important thing to remember about DeerSelect is that it reflects purely genetic information without the bias of environmental influences.”

Pedigree recording is another vital piece of information for DeerSelect.

“The quality of the information entered into DeerSelect seriously affects the accuracy and therefore usefulness of the eBVs. Pedigree, birth date, dates all traits were measured and mob codes are essential pieces of information.”

 The breeders’ view

Stud name: Melior

Location: Balfour, Southland

Stud Principal/s: Tom and Samantha Macfarlane

How long have you recorded animals using DeerSelect? 2004 onwards.

What is your Number One breeding objective? Maximising profitability of deer farming.

What are the traits that you measure using DeerSelect? Weaning, Autumn, Winter, 12-month and mature weights; Eye Muscle Area, parasite resistance through Carla levels, fertility and conception date.

What, for you, are the most important DeerSelect Breed Values? All DeerSelect breeding values are important to us because they contribute to profitability and we take them all into account when making breeding decisions.

How has the use of DeerSelect recording been reflected in your stud’s genetic progress? DeerSelect has made it possible to select the best animals every year to be the parents of the next generation. After 16 years and eight generations of selection using DeerSelect we have made more than 20kg of genetic progress for 12-month weight, with bigger eye muscles while maintaining fertility.

What for you has been the big payback from using DeerSelect? It’s made it possible to compare breeding values between studs and present these independent values to clients.


Stud name: Fairlight Deer Stud

Location: Garston, Northern Southland

Stud Principal/s: Simon Wright

How long have you recorded animals using DeerSelect? 2004 onwards

What is your Number One breeding objective? High growth rate, good temperament and constitution.

What are the traits that you measure using DeerSelect? Weaning weight, 12-month weight, early conception.

What for you are the most important DeerSelect Breed Values? 12-month weight.

How has the use of DeerSelect recording been reflected in your stud’s genetic progress? Yearling carcaseweight increased on average 800g/year.

What for you has been the big payback from using DeerSelect? A more productive and profitable business.


Stud name: Arawata Deer Farm

Location: Pinebush, Southland

Stud Principal/s: John and Mel Somerville

How long have you recorded animals using DeerSelect? 2004 onwards.

What is your Number One breeding objective? Our focus is velvet, but 12-month growth rate is also important because we sell maternal sires.

What are the traits that you measure using DeerSelect? Weaning Weight, 12-month weight, two-year velvet weight.

What for you are the most important DeerSelect Breed Values? Two-year velvet weight and 12-month weight.

How has the use of DeerSelect recording been reflected in your stud’s genetic progress? Our velvet weights have increased, and that can be attributed to breed value-based selection and culling. However, what’s also important, and not measured by a breed value, is the style which is still very much a visual based assessment.

What for you has been the big payback from using DeerSelect? It’s given us confidence in our breeding plan and given buyers objective and science-backed numbers on which to base their buying decisions. However, a good breeding plan cannot be purely numbers or breed value-based, visual assessment is still very important because you must like what you see. In the future we’d like to see a breed value that indicates the fertility of a hind.

We’re very supportive of DeerSelect and breed values and hope that more breeders will come on board particularly in the recording of velvet traits. Also, those breeders with a velvet focus who invest in velvet recording and parentage testing of progeny can use these as a powerful selection tool for replacement hinds bearing in mind that they are the engine room of genetic gains.

A lot of hinds may never produce a stag but with supporting velvet breed values and parentage information, you can trace back to any good velvet traits that her daughters could express in their progeny. It takes longer to build the data around data given that only half a recorded sires progeny is likely to be male; more velvet recording will improve accuracy and herd linkages.